A story at its most basic is what happens when a character sets out to achieve what he or she desires. It’s a kind of journey, though your character does not actually have to go somewhere for a story to begin. Trouble can come to town instead. In the end, your character may not get what she set out to achieve, but her main goal or desire is settled in one form or another. Most classical stories begin with a kind of stasis: a man goes about his everyday life, or planning for the wedding was going smoothly until, you’ll never guess what happened—an event throws the main character, or protagonist, off his equilibrium.
This event is called the inciting incident. It’s the action that throws life out of whack. It is a problem that must be solved: a call from a lost love the day before the wedding; she’s coming to town to make it work. Or the moment the struggling family receives a foreclosure notice. The inciting incident sets up the story’s conflict. It sets the stage for the drama that will now unfold. The more the character’s life is unhinged by this event, the more she will have to overcome in order to return her life to the state it was in beforehand. This differential is often referred to as what’s at stake. If a character is about to lose her house, those are pretty high stakes. High stakes make for more drama than, say, a character who realizes he’s lost his wallet—unless that wallet happened to contain his last $5. That character now has his very future at risk. High stakes make for more drama.
The inciting incident is followed by rising action. This is a series of obstacles in which the character sets out to get what she wants in response to the inciting incident but is met by more and more challenges. Each new hurdle is bigger than the last. Each confrontation takes the protagonist further afield from where he or she would like to be. These events should be surprising and make the audience wonder how the protagonist is going to get out of the mess her life has now become. Shorter movies and documentaries often spend less time on rising action, or as it’s sometimes referred to, escalating conflict.
Finally, the protagonist arrives at the climax. This is the moment of truth, the do-or-die moment when she comes face to face with the possibility of actually achieving her goal. The goal might not be obtained, but at the climax this issue will be determined decisively, one way or another, once and for all.
A story sometimes ends with a denouement. This is a quick tying up of loose ends after the action of the climax. It’s simple and short.
This is classical story structure. Of course, not every story contains all of these elements, and they don’t always happen in the same order. Think of movies that start at the climax then go back to the beginning to show you how the events unfolded.
Most important though, all good stories have conflict. A character has a desire, and that desire cannot be achieved due to obstacles. That is conflict. Conflict is the friction that propels the story forward. It’s what keeps the audience interested enough to want to find out what happens next.
Documentaries that don’t have the benefit of time often recount stories. They describe events that have already happened. But the means by which a story is told, even if it’s in the past tense, remain the same: inciting incident, escalating conflict, climax. These are the elements you want in your story. You can always surprise your audience, even if the story has effectively taken place already, if you have the elements of a good story and you use them well. A good story well-told: that’s your goal.
A quick note on things that are not stories: A location is not a story. Little Italy is not a story. Little Italy is a place where a story might happen. Stories, in the vast majority of cases, are about people, people who want things and do everything in their power to get them, despite the mounting obstacles that get in the way.